30 Astonishing Facts About Death

iStock.com/AlexSava
iStock.com/AlexSava

Death is the start of a great adventure—never mind that you might not be around for it.

  1. You can be declared dead in some states but considered alive in others. That's because New York and New Jersey allow families to reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs.
  1. One of the first visible signs of death is when the eyes cloud over, as fluid and oxygen stop flowing to the corneas. That can happen within 10 minutes after death if the eyes were open (and 24 hours if the eyes were closed).
  1. Today, there are about 300 bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen in America in the hope that science will one day be able to bring them back to life. (Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney is not one of them.)
  1. It's a myth that hair and nails grow after death. What really happens is that the body dries out, so the nail beds and skin on the head retract, making nails, stubble, and hair appear longer.
  1. Rigor mortis is only temporary. It's a result of certain fibers in the muscle cells becoming linked by chemical bonds, but usually goes away in a day or two as those bonds break down. How long it lasts depends on the temperature in the environment, among other factors.

A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death
A corpse flower, or titan arum, known for smelling a lot like death.
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  1. Two of the gases responsible for the distinctive smell of death are called putrescine and cadaverine. They're produced when bacteria break down the amino acids ornithine and lysine, respectively.
  1. Bodies can become covered in what looks like soap after death. Technically known as adipocere (and sometimes also called grave wax), it's a byproduct of decomposition that happens as the fat in a body decays under wet, anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) conditions. Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian each have an adipocere-covered corpse on display.
  1. There are more than 200 corpses of failed climbers frozen on Mount Everest.
  1. The low-temperature, low-oxygen, highly acidic environmental conditions of European peat bogs can preserve bodies with remarkable detail for centuries, and even millennia. One of the most famous examples of these "bog bodies" is the Iron Age Tollund Man in Denmark. When his body was discovered in 1950, it looked so fresh his discoverers thought they'd found a recent murder victim.

A skull against a black background
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  1. Scientists are currently studying the "necrobiome"—all the bacteria and fungi in a corpse—to figure out whether changes in the microbes alone can provide clues to the time of death. The concept is known as the "microbial clock."
  1. People used to believe that the blood of the freshly executed was a health tonic, and would pay executioners a few coins to drink it warm from the gallows.
  1. "Hop the twig," "yield the crow a pudding," "snuff one's glim," and "climb the six-foot ladder," were all once slang terms for death.
  1. Dead bodies generally aren't dangerous just because they're dead. But in the 19th century, there was widespread belief in "miasmatic theory," which said that air coming from rotting corpses and other sources of decay lead to the spread of disease. This belief was more or less replaced by germ theory.

Feet on a morgue table with toe tag
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  1. Embalming is rarely required by law, except in certain situation where bodies leave state borders.
  1. The average human body produces between 3 and 9 pounds of cremated remains after being burned. The cremation chamber, known as a retort, can get as hot as 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  1. The Victorians often took photos of dead loved ones as part of their grieving process. These postmortem photographs became keepsakes that were displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, and worn inside lockets.
  1. In at least one version of telegraph code, LOL meant "loss of life."
  1. In 897, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of a previous pope, Formosus, exhumed, perched on a throne, and questioned about his "crimes" (which were mostly about being on the wrong side of a political struggle.) The event is known as the Cadaver Synod.
  1. The term mortician was invented as part of a PR campaign by the funeral industry, which felt it was more customer-friendly than undertaker. The term was chosen after a call for ideas in Embalmer's Monthly.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln
A statue of Abraham Lincoln, whose embalming widely popularized the practice
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  1. The embalming of Abraham Lincoln for the journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, is widely credited with encouraging everyday acceptance of the practice.
  1. You're more likely to be killed at a dance party than while skydiving.
  1. Between the 16th and the early 20th centuries, artists used ground-up mummies as paint pigment. (It was also thought to be a potent medicine.)
  1. The idea that graves need to be 6 feet deep comes from a 1665 plague outbreak in England, when the mayor of London decreed the burial depth to limit the spread of disease.
  1. No Mormon mourning is complete without Mormon funeral potatoes, a cheesy casserole that usually involves cornflakes. Other foods associated with death include pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), traditionally eaten on Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico; ossa dei morti ("bones of the dead") cookies in Italy, meant to represent the bones of dead saints; and Victorian funeral biscuits.

Mormon funeral potatoes
Mormon funeral potatoes
GreenGlass1972, Wikimedia // Public Domain
  1. Contrary to popular reports, it's not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, Norway. But since the town has no nursing homes and only a small hospital, residents are required to move to the mainland once they become elderly. It is true that it's so cold there bodies barely decompose.
  1. "Human composting," in which bodies decompose into dirt in reusable "recomposition vessels," could soon be legal in Washington state. The results don't smell, and are suitable for use in the garden.
  1. The Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado, is held each year in honor of a 110-year-old corpse located in a local Tuff Shed and surrounded by dry ice (it's a DIY cryonics set-up). The festival features coffin racing, frozen salmon tossing, costumed polar plunging, and frozen t-shirt contests.

Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019
Coffin racing at the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Nederland, Colorado in 2019
JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images
  1. In the 19th century, several inventors came up with "safety coffins" equipped with bells, flags, and air tubes and designed to help people avoid being buried alive.
  1. Although the etiquette guides for Victorian mourning varied widely, widows mourned for a total of two-and-a-half years, while widowers mourned for three months.
  1. In the 17th century and beyond, human skulls were soaked in alcohol to create a tincture called “the King’s drops" that was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments. King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe.

5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

10 'Nuts' That Aren't Actually Nuts

None of these "nuts" are truly nuts.
None of these "nuts" are truly nuts.
margouillatphotos/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Who doesn’t love a pedantic houseguest? Next time you’re at a dinner party and someone breaks out the mixed nuts, seize the moment and let everyone know that a lot of the tasty treats we call nuts don’t actually merit the title. Botanists define a “nut” as a dry, one-seeded fruit encased in a hardened ovary wall (called a pericarp). Genuine nuts are fused to their shells and won’t naturally break open upon reaching maturity. Hazelnuts fit the criteria. So do chestnuts. But these ever-popular snack foods sure don’t.

1. Peanuts

The star ingredient of America's favorite nut butter isn't actually a nut. Instead, peanuts are considered legumes, along with soybeans, lentils, and chickpeas. Unlike nuts, most legumes come in self-opening pods—which may or may not grow underground, depending on the species. 

2. Almonds

A group of almonds in wood bowl atop a rustic table
These almonds formed inside a fleshy fruit.
onairjiw/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Almonds are seeds found within the fleshy, peach-like fruits of the Asian Prunus dulcis tree. They’ve earned a spot on our list because actual nuts don’t come wrapped up in softened fruit matter. So how do botanists classify almonds? As drupe seeds. Briefly stated, a drupe is a soft fruit with a hard inner shell. (Think peach pits.)

3. Cashews

Like almonds, cashews are drupe seeds pulled from soft fruit packages. The trail mix staples poke out of red, yellow, or green “cashew apples” that grow on South American trees. Cashew seeds are naturally protected by a toxin-coated outer shell that's roasted to neutralize the acid. In spite of this defense mechanism, the yummy snacks were soon embraced by Portuguese explorers and distributed across the globe.

4. Walnuts

A squirrel eating walnuts in a park
The walnuts this squirrel is noshing on are drupes, not nuts.
Serhii Ivashchuk/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Hey look, it’s another member of the drupe clan! Walnuts inhabit green fruit on temperate trees in the genus Juglans. Most of the seeds that end up on American dining room tables come from the English walnut tree, Juglans regia [PDF]. Even if you don’t eat the drupes, you can probably find a use for them: Walnut shells have been incorporated into everything from cosmetic products to kitty litter.

5. Pine nuts

About 20 pine tree species—including the Italian stone pine—produce big seeds that get harvested en masse. Those seeds are removed from cones in a meticulous process, which accounts for their high selling prices.

5. Brazil Nuts

You’ll encounter Brazil nuts all over the Amazon rainforest, in such countries as Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and (of course) Brazil. They come from a hardened 4-to-6-pound pod containing up to two dozen seeds that might become trees someday. The pods are so hefty, getting bonked on the head by a falling one is enough to stun or even kill you.  Surprisingly, Brazil Nuts can also be fairly radioactive thanks to the trees' roots, which grow deep within radium-rich soil.

7. Macadamia Nuts

Rows of trees at an Australian Macadamia orchard
An Australian macadamia orchard filled with the country's native drupe.
oxime/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Gympie, Queensland, has an odd claim to fame: Approximately 70 percent of all the macadamia nuts on Earth are descended from trees grown in the Australian town. Macadamias are an ecological staple in Queensland and New South Wales. But—stop us if this sounds familiar—their so-called “nuts” are drupes.

8. Pistachios

Not only are pistachios drupes, but they’ve got shells that automatically open with a literal popping noise once the contents reach a certain size. When all’s said and done, though, at least pistachios are Frank Drebin-approved.

9. Pecans

The Algonquian term for “nut that requires a stone to crack” gave us the English word pecan. Wild pecans can be gathered in Mexico and the United States—they’re true North American treasures. Name origin aside, they can’t accurately be called nuts. Botanists usually refer to them as drupes, but because of their tough shells, the label “drupaceous nuts” might be more appropriate. Either way, pecans aren’t true nuts. They make for great pies, though.

10. Coconuts

A monkey sticks out its tongue while eating a coconut
This cheeky monkey seems to be enjoying its delicious drupe.
Volga2012/iStock via Getty Images Plus

A drupe of unusual size, the coconut is a fibrous juggernaut that bears a single seed. The whitish fleshy interior can be immersed in hot water and then rung out through a cloth to produce coconut milk. Meanwhile, the outer shells are responsible for some of the most delightfully bizarre Guinness World Records categories, such as “most green coconuts smashed with the head in one minute.” (You can see other unusual Guinness World Record categories here.)

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